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The overlooked crisis of school leadership

By the Notebook on Jun 18, 2013 11:42 AM

by James H. Lytle

When I started working for the School District in 1970, there were 300,000 students attending 265 schools. When the new school year begins, there will be 200,000 students at 303 schools, including charter schools. There are now more and smaller schools than there were in 1970, when some high schools had 4,000 students and were on double shifts. In one sense, this shift can be seen as an improvement, because small schools tend to be more caring and effective than big schools.

But as the number of schools increased, the demand for school leaders -- principals -- grew markedly too. At the same time, the job of principal has become more complex, more demanding, and less attractive in a District ill-equipped to support or retain quality school leaders.

Recent research indicates that principal leadership accounts for about 25 percent of a school's performance. This means recruiting, developing, and supporting effective principals should be a top priority for any school district or charter management organization. To put it differently, there are no good schools without good principals, and there is no more cost-effective way to improve schools than to provide good leadership.

As things stand, however, the District has almost no capacity to transition or support principals, new or experienced. No pipeline program is in place, no systemic leadership development program, no workable supervision or peer-support program. And decreasing resources and staffing make the principals’ jobs increasingly challenging (some might say impossible).

An assessment of the District’s school leadership situation indicates that next fall:

  • At least 70 schools will have new principals.
  • About a quarter of school principals will have no experience in Philadelphia (although a few may have had experience in other districts).
  • More than half will have less than five years of experience as principals.

The screening and selection process to fill the vacancies has been going on for the last several weeks, with virtually no public awareness.

In addition, principals will be leading schools in a District enmeshed in crises. Beyond the unprecedented budget shortfall and layoffs, there have been school closings, charter expansion, contentious labor relations, and a growing perception of city schools as violent and disorganized. Add to that constant leadership turnover in the School Reform Commission, in the superintendency, and among key central and regional office personnel.

Through all this, effective principals have been expected to do more and more to hold their schools together. They must establish a safe climate and engage parents and community leaders. Principals need to provide instructional guidance, allocate increasingly scarce resources, and hire and develop their teachers. Most important, the principal must build trust among staff and students. The best approach to school leadership is as a collective responsibility with teachers and parents.

Principals are also expected, in the current policy environment, to implement new teacher-evaluation systems and usher in the Common Core standards into curricula and tests. They must make sure that students with special needs have suitable programs and supports and increase college access for all.

The administration’s effort to address the principal pipeline problem has been to support an “alternate route” certification program called PhillyPlus, which is managed by the Philadelphia School Partnership. The program is modeled on New Leaders for New Schools, a national program with grandiose claims but no evidence that it produces more effective principals than traditional programs. The PhillyPlus design assumes that its candidates will be assigned to assistant principal vacancies for their paid internships, but if the budget cuts hold, there will be no assistant principals in the District next year. Nor does PhillyPlus have the capacity to respond to local need, which is to provide at least 60 new principal candidates each year.

At the heart of the District’s leadership challenge is a simple truth: Leaders want to be part of organizations that are mission-driven and have the prospect of success over time. That is why some of the best principals have been leaving Philadelphia. A recent example is Stephen Brandt, the award-winning principal of Roxborough High School, now on his way to Bensalem. A recent NewsWorks article explains that “the current state of the Philadelphia School District played a big part in Brandt's decision.”

None of the current senior management team has been in the District for more than nine months. Central office turnover has been rampant, especially in Human Resources. Yet decades of research in the education, corporate, and nonprofit sectors provides compelling evidence that leadership stability at all levels is closely linked to organizational performance.

The need to create a sustained and systemic talent-development-and-leadership pipeline is acute. Current conditions require extraordinary, not ordinary, school leadership. The problem is not simply a District and charter school one. It is a civic crisis with the very real prospect of a disintegrating public school system.

As a first step, the District and the Philadelphia School Partnership need to make the leadership crisis a top priority by reaching out to the corporate and university sectors for help in addressing their leadership needs. In the short term, that might mean assisting in summer training and orientation programs, and providing mentors for new and experienced principals. In the longer term, that could mean collaborating with universities and the business community to design programs that tie directly to the District’s specifications. Given the array of challenges the District’s senior leadership are now confronting, I worry that this priority will remain unaddressed until the other crises have played out.

James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (27)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 18, 2013 1:59 pm
How shall we choose our principals is an essential question of school governance. I submit it is the most important decision in the governance and effectiveness of schools as communities in a democratic society. All of the Great schools which I have ever worked with or studied had the common denominator that they were well functioning school communities. The best way to choose our leaders is through open, honest, transparent, inclusive and democratic processes. Professional communities should choose their own leaders. The worst way to select principals is through The Philadelphia School Partnership whose mission is to circumvent democratic practices in the governance of public schools. We need to have this public discussion as a community. Thanks Torch.
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on June 18, 2013 1:43 pm
Excellent commentary! The process of selecting new principals needs to be transparent and involve the community. Neither occurs in the SDP.
Submitted by Concerned teacher (not verified) on June 18, 2013 1:23 pm
Why is the PSP part of this?! Their agenda is for charter expansion, starvation of neighborhood schools and promotion of Ineffective leadership.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 18, 2013 1:49 pm
Torch, This "starve from within as well as without" is a part of a plan. Your astute observations (aside from the unfortunate inclusion of the Phila. School Partnership in the solution recommendation) suggests you are not aware that there is no desire on the part of the governor/SRC/mayor for the district to be on a path to success. The very real prospect of a disintegrating public school system is at our doorstep. ALL Philadelphians should be weeping at that prospect. Comments on this site as well as indicate as a city we are are far from being on the same page. Please continue offering your commentary on the Notebook. It is much appreciated.
Submitted by Christa (not verified) on June 18, 2013 2:14 pm
"a growing perception of city schools as violent and disorganized"....this is not a perception, this is a reality at most schools..NOT ALL, but a lot of them. Dr. Hite (and his staff) should not be trusted considering the legal troubles he has brought with him stemming from his lack of leadership in his previous school district. Dr. Hite has shown from his time at Prince Georges County that he is unable to identify a high quality staff. The district will never be able to reinvent itself if we continue to receive Superintendents from the Broad Academy or any other training facility that is connected to the corporate reform movement. We need a Superintendent from Philadelphia that has risen through the ranks and knows what the School District of Philadelphia needs. We need to study other school districts to see how they recruit leadership from within. There is too much of an emphasis on leadership from outside the school district.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on June 18, 2013 2:51 pm
Thanks Christa, And we need support from our universities and our child advocacy agencies and our children's hospitals in pressuring for support for our public schools and a reversal of the pathologic "reform" agenda.
Submitted by Brian Cohen (not verified) on June 18, 2013 2:49 pm
Thank you, Dr. Lytle, for reminding people out there that school leadership is a critical aspect of all this. Perhaps if we wanted to rethink how things were done at a leadership level, we would be more efficient and effective. There are a few case studies of teacher-led schools in this country that have helped numerous students and communities alike. Since we are in such dire straights now, maybe we should try it out in Philadelphia?
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on June 18, 2013 3:48 pm
Thank you, Brian, for adding this alternative. The "all powerful" principal model is ineffective and counter productive. Teacher led schools offer an opportunity for those who know instruction - which is very few principals in the SDP - and the students to work with community parents, families, etc. to create viable alternatives.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 18, 2013 6:38 pm
I absolutely agree with you and would like to point out that the National Teacher Quality Report, which was bought and paid for by PSP, promotes only the "all powerful" principal model which has never proven effective anywhere. That model is not supported by any author on effective leadership which I have read. Collaboration, collegiality, and creating a nurturing environment for teaching and learning is essential to building a professional community of learners. I worked under Torch when he was the principal at University City H.S., and he professed "teacher empowerment" at that time and had a laissez-faire leadership style.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 18, 2013 3:58 pm
Dr. David Hornbeck was our last district superintendent whose mission centered on students and their educational needs. He dared to go to Harrisburg and stand up for children by legislators that they were short-changing Philadelphia in funding of schools. What did he get for telling the truth? He was unceremoniously escorted out of town. The next school leader's mission was to erase Hornbeck's name from history and eradicate all of his initiatives. The SRC will only select leaders who have been trained by the Broad Academy. Their mission is to reform (privatize ) public schools into charters. The SRC does not want great principals. They want principals who will follow the script given them. The good and the great principals can't get out of Philly fast enough.
Submitted by Joe (not verified) on June 19, 2013 12:22 pm
Yes, Hornbeck was NOT part of the "reform" corporate takeover. He cared about the kids and fought for equal rights for ALL and that was his demise. Unless the people apply pressure on these cretins and it needs to be real up close and personal pressure, it will only get worse and worse. It won't stop on its own and the crooked pols and the privateer shot callers are being emboldened by our silence which is deafening. Maybe we are the pansies and punks they think us to be !!!!!! Let's all wear red on Friday, that will learn em good.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 18, 2013 4:41 pm
Don't forget all the principals that are 'retiring' due to the PSSA cheating investigations
Submitted by Education Grad ... on June 18, 2013 5:34 pm
A few points stood out to me from this piece: "The screening and selection process to fill the vacancies has been going on for the last several weeks, with virtually no public awareness." Principals matter and the selection process should not be going on behind closed doors. ------ "They must make sure that students with special needs have suitable programs" My experience and understanding from speaking with others is that many principals lack the knowledge about special ed needed to effectively serve as the LEA representative for one's school. My own brief experience with the District has taught me that a Special Education Liaison cannot compensate for a principal who lacks knowledge of special ed. ------ "As a first step, the District and the Philadelphia School Partnership need to make the leadership crisis a top priority by reaching out to the corporate and university sectors for help in addressing their leadership needs." The PSP shouldn't even be involved with the leadership crisis. Has Mark Gleason ever been a teacher or principal? No, he hasn't, enough said. PhillyPlus is a mini version of the Broad Superintendent's Academy. Even the websites look similar. Where did the PSP receive the curriculum for its program? Is there research supporting it? Everything in our schools is supposed to be research-based. The training for a job as important as a principal's shouldn't be driven by foundations. The programs for training principals need to be much more rigorous and hands-on than they are now. The programs need to be more selective. How about promoting a diffusion of knowledge from well-functioning suburban districts to the SDP instead of diffusion from business and people who aren't educators? EGS
Submitted by Christina Puntel (not verified) on June 18, 2013 8:02 pm
I have no idea why we need corporate or university sectors to reach out to us at this time. I'm not even going to touch the corporate partnership thing, since I have a strong belief that educators are the best teachers of educators. I have been a teacher in Philly schools since 1998, and the notion of university partnerships are really laughable to me. If there is a university partnership around leadership, it would surely be to foster that school's/department's/prof's own agenda... I see so little connections between the universities in Philly and our schools... Anyone at Penn doing a hunger strike in Harrisburg? Anyone at Temple marching against the school to prison pipeline? And if they are, how come we don't know about it? And forget that type of support.. Anyone at any of these schools just SHOWING UP, being present, at any of our schools? Or are we just good enough for your student teachers? I am not a principal, but I imagine they create networks and communities of support without "programs" doing it for them. The real issue is about the dirth of conscious, alive leadership; principals who make informed decisions with their staff, ones who get strong community partnerships going, ones who know their students, ones who advocate for the voiceless, ones who sing when its time to sing and yell when its time to yell and cry. I don't think this can be taught. I think when those people come to us, we should be allowed to choose them for our schools. We should be allowed to support them in unconventional ways. And they should not feel bogged down by politics, or by beaurocracy.
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on June 19, 2013 1:12 am
Univ of Penn / GSE main concern seems to be Teach for America - its graduate school is packed with TFA and Penn makes a mother load off of getting TFA certified. Now, Penn is working with the developer of the Fishtown / Northern Liberties apartment complex to house TFA for so-called "low income" / $1000/month apartments. We need principals who actually know instruction and have a prove, long term track record as excellent teachers. I haven't met any.
Submitted by g (not verified) on June 18, 2013 9:32 pm
Speaking of school leadership-Who has realized that Penny Nixon is back!!!!!!!!!!!!!! How can this possibly be? Am I living in the Twilight Zone?????????????????????????????? Comments?
Submitted by Annony (not verified) on June 19, 2013 1:46 am
So much for the investigation into cheating... Nixon was in the mix with the mess at Wagner in 2012 as well as long before... There were a few administrators "sacrificed" but apparently the Hite / the SRC / Khin don't care.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 19, 2013 11:22 am
Dr. Penny Nixon....lets address her correctly. She earned her doctorate and she's due that much respect.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 18, 2013 10:28 pm
Penny (has continued to) receive a SDP salary so even Penny, from time to time, affectionately punches the clock.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 19, 2013 11:40 am
I don't get it the SRC wants to spend 4 more million for outside council on top of the 6 million they already pay. They want to increase the gift policy from 5K to 20K. I just got laid off because there isn't any money......??????
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 19, 2013 12:13 pm
There's money. It's about PRIORITIES and how it's spent. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 19, 2013 1:14 pm
I agree with you! My kid's school waste much money on stupid stuff that is not needed.
Submitted by Concerned teacher (not verified) on June 19, 2013 12:42 pm
They are just out in the open now with their Eli Broad privitaziation agenda. No need to try and sugar coat it any more. Disgusting. I just threw up a little in my mouth.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 20, 2013 6:55 am
A perfect example of the lack of good, trained leadership, is the newly appointed principal at one of the higher achieving elementary schools in the city. This school is handed over to someone with less than 5 years teaching experience and no administrative experience. Where is the common sense? ...and you wonder why our schools are failing?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 20, 2013 6:00 am
Same with a highly selective, smaller magnet school - limited teaching experience and NO administrative experience but well connected... It is who you know not what you know or a track record in the classroom or office.
Submitted by Gamal Sherif on June 20, 2013 9:00 am
Torch, Thanks for framing the importance of consistent & effective leadership. Principals are part of a larger system, and we need to strategically support all dimensions of effective schools. An isolated emphasis on individual principal excellence, however, is an example of the human capital model of school reform: "If we just had excellent principals (or teachers), then students would achieve at high levels." The human capital model also has the potential to implicate principals -- and teachers. We need school enrichment models that foster teachers' stewardship of the profession. When teachers have the flexibility to modify curriculum, instruction, assessment, and policy to meet the needs of their students, schools are enriched. Check out Carrie R. Lenea's "The Missing Link in School Reform," an article that emphasizes the importance of teachers' social capital: Gamal Sherif
Submitted by Carol Wacker (not verified) on June 20, 2013 6:33 pm
Hi Torch, Glad to see that you are still involved with the Philadelphia School System. I think you know that my preferred promotional model follows corporate practice. For example, a newly hired worker performs at or below average performance. When he gets more familiar with expectations, he performs extremely well at the average level. Soon, he performs at a very high level, over and beyond the usual expectations. Now he is promotable. The system should codify such a program to identify extraordinary teachers, encourage them to get the necessary course work for certification, and perhaps offer them internships. As it is now, the teachers decide that they want a promotion so they get the certifications. This has worked reasonably well but I think there are ways to identify the best candidates.

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